Character assassination sullies the History Channel


Early in my career, I had a city editor -- an otherwise reasonable man, a talented journalist and a good friend -- who nonetheless spun the most astonishingly farfetched conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy. In one of his more fevered imaginings -- spun over his desk at work and over bourbon and poker in his home -- my friend told a conspiracy tale in which a police officer in Long Beach was murdered, in the police station, to cover up his role in the assassination and its coverup.

But not even my friend went as far as a History Channel documentary broadcast in November that argued -- no, insisted -- that Lyndon Johnson “murdered John Kennedy to become president and to avoid prison,” as one Texas lawyer said in the opening moments of “The Guilty Men,” one program in a 12-hour series called “The Men Who Killed Kennedy.”

The series, which covered various Kennedy assassination theories and was part of the History Channel’s coverage of the 40th anniversary of the event, attracted virtually no media attention at the time, although outraged relatives and former colleagues of President Johnson did protest and demanded an opportunity to rebut the charge -- and got nowhere.


When that protest intensified last month, the History Channel agreed to appoint a panel of three historians to “discuss the controversial theory and to review the program.” When their examination is complete, the History Channel has promised to broadcast another program featuring their conclusions about “America’s fascination with the Kennedy assassination, [including] the credibility of this particular theory and the way it was presented.”

Credibility? Incredibility would be more like it.

I could understand such a theory being published in the National Enquirer or on some whacko weblog or in a novel by Robert Ludlum or Richard Condon. But the History Channel is supposed to present, well, history, not preposterous and irresponsible speculation by folks repeating the hearsay rantings of folks now dead. (One of the key figures in the show is Barr McClellan, who repeats charges he made in a 2003 book “Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K” -- a book the New York Times characterized as containing “several passages of admittedly fictional projection.”)

How did the History Channel decide to descend into this ugly morass?

“The Men Who Killed Kennedy” aired in somewhat different forms in England in 1988 and again in 1995, and producer Nigel Turner was criticized both times for some of his assassination theories.

Executives at the History Channel say their program was “original” and was subject to “a review” beforehand. But they won’t say who conducted that review and they won’t answer specific questions on the program, pending the outcome of the examination by their panel of historians (Robert Dallek, author of biographies of Johnson and Kennedy; Stanley Kutler, professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin and author of two books on Watergate; and Thomas Sugrue, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania).

They do, however, say they are “reviewing our review procedures,” and in a prepared statement announcing the appointment of the historians, Dan Davids, executive vice president and general manager of the channel, said, “Nothing is more important to the History Channel than the integrity of our programming.”

He also said he and his fellow executives “take [critics’] ... concerns about historical accuracy and fairness very seriously and are taking appropriate action.”


The “appropriate action” would have been to avoid showing “The Guilty Men” in the first place -- or, failing that, to have retracted it and apologized for it immediately.

Muddying the waters

I’m all for a robust debate and responsible investigation of the Kennedy assassination -- or any other momentous event in our nation’s history. But this program was neither debate nor responsible. It was a farce.

It’s true that nine times in the course of the one-hour, independently produced program, the History Channel’s resident historian, Steve Gillon, reminded viewers that it offered “just one of the many theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” But that’s as close as the station came to a disclaimer.

I’ve long, albeit reluctantly, accepted the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. It’s not that I find the commission’s arguments so persuasive. But while I remain open to -- indeed eager for -- a better explanation, every alternative I’ve heard so far seems even less persuasive.

One need not accept the Warren Commission findings, though, to be horrified by the History Channel broadcast of “The Guilty Men.” One need not even have been an admirer of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson could be -- and often was -- ruthless in pursuit of his objectives. It would not be difficult to make the case that the concept of corruption was not entirely foreign to Johnson’s experience. But murder? Johnson as a presidential assassin -- not the trigger man but the man who ordered and organized the killing?


Wait, there’s more. “The Guilty Men” said Johnson ordered seven other murders -- including that of his own sister. Johnson as a serial killer?

“Deep in the heart of Texas lie buried some of the darkest and most well-kept secrets that tell us who killed John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 -- and why,” says an ominous voice-over near the beginning of “The Guilty Men.” Then: “Those forces of darkness revolved around one of the state’s most famous political sons -- Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

Far-reaching tentacles

The show went on to “document” what it called Johnson’s “murderous cycle” and posited the theory that he had help in the Kennedy assassination from the CIA (allegedly fearful that Kennedy would abolish it), the FBI (whose boss feared that Kennedy would fire him), the military-industrial complex (supposedly worried that Kennedy planned to withdraw American forces from Vietnam), and various Texas oil billionaires (alarmed that Kennedy would end or reduce the oil depletion allowance that had helped make them billionaires).

The show also said Johnson feared imprisonment because of his association with Bobby Baker, a Johnson protege and Senate aide who was forced to resign after accusations of illegal activities and was later imprisoned after being found guilty of theft, fraud and income tax evasion.

Various elements of this far-reaching conspiracy theory have been advanced before, of course -- mostly by the kooks who frequent the fringes of society and also by Oliver Stone in his 1991 film, “JFK.”

But not even Stone went as far as “The Guilty Men” in fingering Johnson, and Stone was making a movie -- reprehensible as it was -- not a program for the heretofore respected History Channel.


I hope their expert historians move quickly in their review, and when they return -- as they inevitably will -- with a report that there isn’t a shred of evidence linking LBJ to the JFK assassination, I hope the History Channel -- and its parent companies, Hearst, Disney’s ABC Cable and General Electric’s NBC -- will have the good sense to make a public and abject apology.

If not, I’ve got this script I’m working on and I figure they’ll be interested in it. It reveals the dark secret about how Harry Truman conspired with Mr. Blackwell and Elvis Presley’s tailor “Nudie” to poison President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and make the cause of his death look like a cerebral hemorrhage -- all because they thought a wheelchair-bound president did not inspire American men to buy fine clothing.

David Shaw can be reached at To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to